“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NLT).
“We Americans [and much of the world] take Santa Claus, presents, holly, evergreen trees, carol singing, and all the other pleasant Christmas customs very much for granted. How intriguing it is to trace them to their origins. Many of our cherished traditions are buried deep in the pagan past. In fact, when Christmas was first officially established, the date coincided with ancient celebrations of the sun’s rebirth at the winter solstice. The [Roman Catholic] church saw no reason to destroy the old customs, and so they were adopted to fit our celebration of the birth of Christ.” (Christina Hole, Christmas and Its Customs)
Having read accounts like the above of the ‘pagan origins’ of Christmas, there was a time when I began to feel uncomfortable about the celebration of Christmas. Today, however, the disturbing thing for me is not what Christmas once was, but what it is increasingly becoming – a time when Christ is being replaced by an X – shopping malls, Santa or similar. When, in the midst of much fun and revelry, Jesus is forgotten.
The fact that pagans once celebrated a festival in winter, and Christians subsequently replaced those festivities with a celebration of the first coming of Christ the Saviour seems to me a triumph of the true faith. Those pagan deities are forgotten, as we announce at Christmastime, that Christ was born of a virgin, in accordance with the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, to redeem mankind from sin. ‘And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” (Luke 2:14 Berean SB)’. When this good news is proclaimed in churches and sung by carollers in homes and on the streets, our celebrations become holy.
Some might suggest that the pagan origins are indeed the reason Christmas is now being corrupted. So what would be the equivalent of something like that happening in our time? Let’s suppose another festival – the popular Indian festival of Diwali, for example – being similarly transformed. The so-called ‘festival of lights’ to welcome the return of an earthly king to his rightful throne is changed to reflect an eternal truth. For Christians, this could become an occasion to celebrate the second coming of the true King into the world. At Diwali we might light our lamps in anticipation of this future joyous event. I see nothing wrong in a worldly event being transformed into a holy one, rather than the other way round.
We all need a change from our routines now and then, and occasions to celebrate. God gave the Israelites festivals, when they were commanded to gather and rejoice in the good things that He provided for them. When God is the reason for our holidays and celebrations, it can only be a good thing. When Jesus is forgotten, it is meaningless to talk of ‘the joyous season’ – for when Christmas is over, people worse are off in every way. After the first Christmas, the lives of everyone who received the King born that day, dramatically changed; the shepherds and wise men went home rejoicing. The despair was replaced by hope, conflict with peace, and hatred by love. So it should be in the lives of all, who like Anna and Simeon, await the second coming of ‘the Hope of Israel’ and the restoration of everything that sin destroyed.
What would a ‘Christian’ celebration of Christmas look like? Beginning with the advent season, the good news would be proclaimed in numerous ways – in sermons, nativity plays and carol songs – as was done in the past. Many who never go to churches would have the opportunity to hear the gospel and possibly invite Christ into their lives. Houses would be cleaned and decorated – nothing wrong with that. But the drinking parties and endless shopping would cease. People would spend sensibly, not foolishly. We would give sacrificially to the poor, and presents to the needy and homeless, rather than to those who have no need for anything new. We would all remember to forgive and build bridges with people who may have hurt us, for Christmas is essentially a message of forgiveness and reconciliation. It would be a time to shower presents and affection on the elderly, as much as on children. Families would come together, and invite those who are all alone to celebrate with them. And so we would spread Christmas cheer all around.
Father, we pray that we will display Christ in all our celebrations. Help us remember the poor, the homeless, those who suffer or may be lonely at this time. May more and more people receive Christ and be filled with hope, peace and joy this Christmas season.